Stellar performances in Evanston, Highland Park
Pianist Jeffrey Siegel plays the music of Franz Liszt.
Updated: October 15, 2012 8:14PM
Two classical music series were launched the weekend of Oct. 12, and both presented the promise of interesting programs to come.
On Friday evening Oct. 12 pianist Jeffrey Siegel presented the first of four Keyboard Conversations at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall on Northwestern University’s Evanston campus. Siegel calls this series, now beginning its 43rd season, “Concerts with Commentary,” as he speaks briefly about each piece, then plays it in its entirety.
In the season’s initial program, titled “Spellbinding Bach!” Siegel sought to dispel the notion that this towering composer was boring and wrote “golden sewing machine music.”
“My goal here is to demonstrate the emotional Bach, who wrote deeply touching music,” he told the audience, which was filled with many loyal fans who have followed him over the decades.
And that he did, playing the thrilling Chaconne from Bach’s Violin Partita No. 2, transcribed for piano by Ferruccio Busoni, which was filled with majesty solemnity which became a heart-rending lament.
He also gave us the back story that some commentators believe informed this work, one of Bach’s masterpieces: “It was 1720, and upon returning from a period at Prince Leopold’s court, Bach learned, as he walked in the door of his house, that while he was away his first wife had died suddenly.”
Siegel rightly credited Busoni, the acclaimed Italian composer and pianist, for transcribing a wealth of Bach’s works for organ and other instruments for the piano keyboard.
Siegel has technique to burn, and through his skillful playing Bach’s themes and melodies sang out amid cascading notes and dense harmonies.
In addition to the Chaconne, the program included the Choral Prelude “Rejoice, Beloved Christians;” Toccata in D Major; and two delightful preludes from Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier.” He concluded with a powerful performance of the Italian Concerto, one of the composer’s most popular keyboard works.
Upcoming Keyboard Conversations will be “Claude Debussy: Clair de lune, Fireworks and Beyond!” Dec. 14, “Schubert in the Age of the Sound Bite” March22, and “Listen to the Dance: Waltzes, Marches, Polkas, and Tangos!” April 26. All begin at 7:30 p.m. in Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, 50 Arts Circle Drive, Evanston. For tickets call (847) 467-4000 or visit www.pickstaiger.org/ticket-office. Parking is free.
Bennett Gordon Hall
Concerts for $10 each returned Oct. 13 to comfortable Bennett Gordon Hall, the year-round venue on the grounds of the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park.
Replacing the long-standing Rising Stars at Ravinia, initiated by the late Edward Gordon decades ago, this BGH series is being held on Saturday nights, rather than Fridays. It also casts a wide net for performers, rather than featuring only up and coming talent.
The first concert, however, brimmed over with youth. Cellist Sebastian Baverstam, an alum of Ravinia’s Steans Music Institute, and pianist Pei-Shan Lee made their Ravinia debuts and gave the audience an evening of exceptional music-making.
Beethoven’s Cello Sonata No. 2 opened the program, and the ease with which these two young people performed this beautiful work together was impressive.
The piece begins meditatively — no one is showing off. Lee’s keyboard style is deliberate, but delicate as well. The focus of her career has been collaborative playing, and that was evident as her partnership with Baverstam resembled a thoughtful dialogue.
The centerpiece of the program was Baverstam’s bravura performance of the Sonata for Unaccompanied Cello by Hungarian composer Zoltan Kodaly.
No surprise that it opened with such gypsy-like intensity you could almost see the evening camp-fire. It was filled with fierce sounds and whirling melodies which demonstrated the virtuosity of the cellist.
There was nothing predictable about this tour-de-force. The Adagio movement, for example, sounded like something from Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project. The cello’s strings were strummed and plucked simultaneously, by one hand.
And there was a point when the cello sounded like a wind instrument or only emitted a sound, with no discernible pitch. At other moments the instrument buzzed, as if coming from an old microphone.
Baverstam played with such fury that the hair on his bow began to fray and for a moment I wondered it would shred before the piece concluded!
This dazzling performance of an extraordinary piece of music certainly cemented the cellist’s reputation as a musician of the highest skill.
Everything calmed down after intermission when the two returned to play the very popular Sonata in A Major by Cesar Franck. Packed with familiar harmonies and a rich, charming theme, it ended the evening on a satisfying note.
There are two more recitals in the BGH fall series: Violinist Tessa Lark and pianist Renana Gutman Oct. 20 and pianist Daria Rabotkina Oct. 27. These programs are at 8 p.m. Saturdays in Ravinia’s 450-seat Bennett Gordon Hall. Parking is free. Additional programs in the BGH Classic Series will be held Dec. 6, Feb. 24, March 16 and April 13 and 20. For complete information, call (847) 266-5100 or visit www.ravinia.org.